Cillian Murphy as Thomas “Tommy” Shelby, cunning Peaky Blinders gang leader and jaded WWI veteran
Birmingham, England, Fall 1919
Series: Peaky Blinders
Episodes: Episodes 1.01 – 1.05
Air Dates: September 12, 2013 – October 10, 2013
Directors: Otto Bathurst (Episodes 1.01 – 1.03) & Tom Harper (Episode 1.04 & 1.05)
Creator: Steven Knight
Costume Designer: Stephanie Collie
Tailor: Keith Watson
BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders is often compared to Boardwalk Empire or The Wire, an unfair comparison as the show stands up excellently on its own and the creator – Steven Knight – has even admitted that he’s never seen either show. One could argue that Peaky Blinders would certainly appeal to watchers of both shows, taking the urban grit of The Wire and the post-WWI family gangsterdom of Boardwalk Empire and launching them both across the pond to settle in Birmingham, England.
The Peaky Blinders were indeed a real name for an urban subculture in late 19th century England, named for the razor blades stitched into gangsters’ flat caps. When the gangster would get into an argument, he could whip off his cap and swing the razor-edged peak against an offender’s eyes… hence the name. The show takes some historical liberties with the gang, pushing their dominance further into the 20th century and centering it around the fictional Shelby family, led by bitter war veteran Tommy and his tough older sister Polly.
The show also depicts the Peaky Blinders as a more organized group of criminals than the glorified street urchins that the real members appear to have been. Although my knowledge of 19th century English street gangs is admittedly lacking, everything I’ve read makes the real Peaky Blinders sound more like the simplistic violent thugs from Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York; Peaky Blinders prefers to present us with a family of ambitious mobsters and bookmakers who aren’t afraid to resort to violence – albeit, very gruesome violence in some instances – when it advances their business.
While Tommy Shelby could hardly be called the show’s moral compass, he relies on his wits just as much as his excitable brothers rely on their razor-sharp caps. Tommy is the conflicted anti-hero we’ve come to know and love thanks to predecessors like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Jimmy McNulty, Boyd Crowder, and “Nucky” Thompson to name a few. With Tommy, it’s hard to tell if he’s being driven by pride, anger, or bitterness (count how many times in an episode he mentions being “in France”!), but it’s safe to assume his criminal motivation comes from a powder keg of all three.
What’d He Wear?
Peaky Blinders introduces us to its protagonist immediately as Tommy Shelby rides a black horse through the dirty streets of 1919 Birmingham. He rides a gray striped herringbone tweed three-piece suit that serves as his main suit through most of the first season, appearing in the first five episodes. Tommy only wears four distinct suits in the show’s first season, with this one receiving a bulk of the screen time.
The simplicity of Tommy’s suit keeps it stylish for both 1919 gangsters and 2013 audiences. While every era is given to sartorial excesses, a no-nonsense dresser like Tommy avoids them for a utilitarian but fashionable day-to-day outfit. In an interview with Clothes on Film, the show’s costume designer Stephanie Collie discusses:
Cillian’s [suits] were all made by a great tailor called Keith Watson. He is amazing. I’ve been using him for years and years. He started off in the ’60s, working in Savile Row. This is where he learnt his trade; he’s a brilliant cutter. Cillian went to him to do all his fittings and they worked out perfectly. Cillian is a perfect model size too, so that was helpful. The best thing was how much the boys loved their clothes, and I think you get a feel of that by the way they walk; they have a swagger about them.
Indeed, Tommy’s suits give Cillian Murphy an athletic, lean silhouette that make him appear taller than his 5’9″ height on screen. This particular suit is gray herringbone tweed with a dark stripe in the cloth. All buttons on both the jacket and the waistcoat are covered in the same tweed suiting.
Tommy’s single-breasted suit jacket has notch lapels that roll over the top button, leaving two covered buttons revealed. He keeps a white linen pocket square neatly and unostentatiously folded in the welted breast pocket, and the flapped hip pockets sit straight on his waist.
The jacket fits comfortably with straight shoulders, a shallow chest, and a pulled-in waist. The back is ventless and the sleeves extend down from roped heads on the shoulders to the two widely spaced cuff buttons, also covered in the same herringbone tweed cloth.
Tommy’s matching vest (let’s say waistcoat, since it’s such a British show) is single-breasted with shawl lapels and a 6-button front. The lowest button, placed on the notched bottom, is left undone. The back of the waistcoat is dark burgundy silk lining with an adjustable strap.
Tommy places his gold Waltham Railroad open-faced pocket watch in the left of his waistcoat’s two welted hip pockets. It attaches to a gold fob through the waistcoat’s third buttonhole.
Costume designer Collie recognizes in her discussion with Clothes on Film that the trousers may have been the least historically accurate element of the suits. While the real Peaky Blinders were known to wear bell bottoms, Collie outfitted Tommy and his crew in straight leg trousers that maintain the lean, contemporary fit of the rest of the suit:
I would never want to use anything that’s historically wrong, but we heighten things to make them more relatable. So, trousers were quite short then, but we just thought we’d lift them a bit more. It’s not the end of the world if that’s not exactly how they were worn. Everything had to be sharp and smart for us.
The plain-hemmed trousers indeed have a short break, best seen when Tommy is on horseback. The straight fit continues up the leg through the waist, kept clean with a plain flat front with frogmouth pockets and no pockets on the back. Trousers rose high in 1919, a fact that Collie was more than happy to incorporate into the men’s suits:
I’ve said this before, but fashion always repeats itself. Three-piece suits look good on everyone. High-waisted trousers are the best thing a man can ever wear.
While much of Tommy’s wardrobe is still accessible in 2015, the hardest item to accurately recreate would be the shirt. Detachable collars were still the norm up through the 1930s, and even a street gang like the Peaky Blinders (at least on the show) adheres to the fashion by wearing both shirts and collars.
All of Tommy’s shirts are styled similarly with a white collar band, white buttons down a front placket, and attached single cuffs. His cuff links are simple brass oblongs, and he also wears brass link-style arm garters on his forearms.
Most of his shirts are striped, although he does briefly wear a solid light blue shirt in the second episode.
Tommy’s first shirt on the series is white with a thin but bold purple stripe.
After that, Tommy wears a white shirt with a light gray stripe that he wears in the first, second, third, and fifth episodes. This, for all intents and purposes, is the Tommy shirt that would be the best way to start emulating the Peaky Blinders’ gang leader.
Finally, the first and fourth episodes also feature Tommy wearing a pale blue shirt with fine blue and gray stripes.
Tommy’s collar throughout the first season is a stiff white detachable club collar – distinctive for its rounded ends – with no spread. He holds it into place with gold studs through the front and back, although only the front stud is exposed.
Tommy curiously never sports a tie in the first season. It was a conscious decision by Collie, who told Clothes on Film that:
Normally, of course, a man would have always worn a tie with a stiff collar, but we thought with Cillian Murphy especially that we wouldn’t do that, to keep everything sort of paired down, plus he’s got that beautiful face – what else do you need?!
…but it still leaves the question – why wouldn’t he do that? Is it Tommy’s way of rebelling against the uniforms that restricted him during the war and doom him to this day? Or is it a more practical decision, giving opponents one less thing to grab and use against him during a fight? (Boardwalk Empire fans will recall the way Eli Thompson utilized a necktie in the fourth season finale.)
The more rugged Al Swearengen on Deadwood went so far as to ignore wearing a shirt altogether, typically just wearing his dirty union suit under his gray striped three-piece suit. Then again, Swearengen didn’t care much what people thought about him… Tommy Shelby isn’t vain, but he doesn’t run Birmingham, either. He still needs to look passable to gain entry into certain high places.
Tommy Shelby’s preferred footwear is a pair of black leather combat-style cap-toe half boots with front lacing through nine eyelets. They resemble the “boondockers” issued by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps during World War II.
His socks are gray and rise high enough on his calf that his leg isn’t exposed when riding horseback pulls the short break of his trousers up even higher.
Switching to the other end of the axis, we come to the “peaky blinder” itself – Tommy’s mixed barleycorn tweed newsboy cap. Tommy’s cap differs from a standard flat cap by the button on the top center of the plump, paneled crown which – like the suit buttons – is covered in the same tweed as the rest of the cap.
Tommy’s razor is stitched in just above the cap’s peak. Although brown and gray wools make up the majority of the hat, brighter threads of red, yellow, green, and blue are mixed in.
Tommy combats the brisk Birmingham fall weather with a white striped henley-style pullover undershirt. Tommy’s cotton undershirts typically have a red-striped front bib with four large white buttons. They are long-sleeved and often peek through the cuffs of his dress shirts.
As the weather cools down in the fifth episode, set in November, Tommy braces for the Birmingham chill by donning his topcoat, a black herringbone wool single-breasted overcoat with large notch lapels and a 3-button front, which he almost always leaves open. It has large hip pockets with the flaps tucked in, roped sleeveheads, a long single vent in the back, and black silk lining that differentiates it from the red-lined topcoat he wears in the second season.
The coat is best seen during the Shelbys’ confrontation with the Lee brothers in the second episode when Tommy wears it with his distinctively darker charcoal herringbone suit.
A surprising affectation for such a taciturn gangster and relatively simple dresser, Tommy also sports a simple gold ring on his left pinky. He adds a second ring to the other hand in his second season.
Stephanie Collie summed up her thoughts on Peaky Blinders style in her Clothes on Film Q&A:
These men probably only had maybe one or two suits, which is how we worked as well. Cillian has literally only got one or two suits throughout, but hopefully you don’t even notice that because you’re engrossed in the story. The clothes are there to be part of the story, but you don’t want anyone to go “oh, wow!” when they see them. They can never be more important than what’s going on in the scene.
For more about Peaky Blinders style at Clothes on Film, check out this page.
Go Big or Go Home
Although the Peaky Blinders are undoubtedly British and often don’t see eye-to-eye with the Irish, Tommy sure has a thing for Irish vices. (Of course, Cillian Murphy himself is Irish, so that helps.)
His preferred brand of whiskey is Old Bushmills, made to this day at the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland, considered to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world with more than 400 years of continuous production under its belt. You can still pick up a bottle of Bushmills… especially if you want to piss off the Catholics willing to shell out a few extra dollars for Jameson. (Not that I have anything against Jameson!)
Tommy also notably smokes Sweet Afton cigarettes in every episode. Outside of its appearance as Margot Tenenbaum’s favorite cigarette in The Royal Tenenbaums, Sweet Aftons are little known in the United States. Another Irish brand, Sweet Aftons were introduced in 1919 by the Dundalk company P.J. Carroll & Co., which has since become a subsidiary of British American Tobacco. The name comes from Robert Burns’ poem “Sweet Afton” to appeal to the Scottish market. The brand has since been discontinued, although Peaky Blinders fans can catch Tommy Shelby lighting one a constant string of them (actually herbal white-filtered cigarettes in a Sweet Afton case) with Morelands safety matches.
And finally, the most notable of all of Tommy’s Irish vices is Grace Burgess, the devious RIC secret agent that infiltrates the Garrison pub and steals his heart… even after he nearly pimps her out to Billy Kimber. But we’ll get to that later.
Of course, whatever you do is instantly made more badass if you’re listening to the show’s theme song, “Red Right Hand” from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1994 album Let Love In.
How to Get the Look
The Peaky Blinders rule Birmingham on the series, and its members aren’t afraid to show it in their swagger. A tweed suit is practical and comfortable for cooler weather, and – if worn correctly and accessorized well – it can project a more rugged image than the classic professorial connotation. You might want to check local laws and regulations about sewing a razor blade into your cap, though…
- Gray striped herringbone tweed three-piece tailored suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted jacket with notch lapels, 3-roll-2 covered-button front, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 2 covered-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted waistcoat with shawl lapels, 6 covered-button front, notched bottom, welted hip pockets, and dark burgundy silk back lining with adjustable strap
- Flat front high-rise trousers with frogmouth front pockets, straight leg, and plain-hemmed short break bottoms
- White-and-gray striped cotton collarless shirt with front placket, white collar band, and single cuffs
- White detachable stiff club collar
- Brass oblong cuff links
- Brass chain-link arm garters
- Black herringbone wool single-breasted topcoat with large notch lapels, 3-button front, flapped hip pockets, and long single vent
- Black leather 9-eyelet front-laced cap-toe “boondocker” half boots
- Gray tall socks
- Striped suspenders
- White cotton long-sleeve henley undershirt with red-striped bib and 4-button front
- White cotton boxer shorts
- Gray & brown mixed barleycorn tweed newsboy cap
- Waltham gold railroad pocketwatch, worn on gold chain with fob
- Gold pinky ring
Tommy Shelby’s personal sidearm is a Webley Mk VI revolver, appropriate for a British war veteran of World War I that would have been issued the weapon. Introduced in 1915 and adopted that same year by the British military, the Mk VI was the final and most successful iteration of the Webley .455 service revolver.
The first Webley break-top revolver was adopted for British military service in November 1887 and was distinctive for its 4″ barrel and “bird’s beak” grips. The modified Mk II and Mk III models followed, but no major differences came until the Mk IV was developed for the Boer War. The Mk IV used better steel, an updated blast-shield, and a barrel-affixed cylinder axis. The “Boer War” Model Mk IV lasted from July 21, 1899 (Ernest Hemingway’s birthday) until December 9, 1913, when the Mk V was ruled out. As England quickly found itself at war, a better service revolver would be needed. The Mk VI was adopted on May 24, 1915 and featured a long 6″ barrel and squared target grips.
Although replaced by the Enfield No. 2 .38-caliber revolver in 1932, the .455 Webley Mk IV remained in favor with British troops well into WWII due to their reliability and power. The automatic extraction with the break-top action allowed for quick, easy reloading and the .455 Webley round remains one of the most powerful cartridges to be chambered in a top-break revolver. Although he may be bitter about his military service, Tommy Shelby couldn’t have chosen a better sidearm for his violent rule of the Birmingham underworld.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the first season when it’s released in October, or catch the first two seasons on Netflix!
If they want them back this bad, they’ll have to pay. That’s the way of the world. Fortune drops something valuable in your lap, you don’t just dump it on the bank of the cut.